Musharraf's balancing act gets trickier
6 January 2003
The first ever clash between US and Pakistani troops shows that General Musharraf is backing himself into a corner. Pakistan is ruled, as the popular wisdom goes, by three A's - Army, Allah and America. The Army needs to line up with Allah, or the fundamentalists who claim to represent Him - the proxy war against India requires a supply of indoctrinated terrorists to be sent into Kashmir. The evidence lies in the lengths to which Musharraf went to create space for the fundamentalist MMA coalition during the November elections - they were given full freedom to campaign, which the secular parties weren't; the college degree and other requirements for election candidates which hobbled secular parties were waived in the case of the MMA, as a madrasa education was considered an adequate substitute. Musharraf is now reaping the whirlwind, as army and fundamentalists are precluding the close alignment with America that he would wish for. Al Qaeda and Talibanist forces are allowed to use sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal northern region to regroup and attack American forces in Afghanistan, and there is disagreement between Washington and Islamabad about whether the US has the right of hot pursuit into Pakistani territory. Simmering tensions have boiled over into a skirmish in which a Pakistani scout shot at and injured an American soldier, and a US F-16 bombed an abandoned madrasa in which the assailants had taken shelter.
The incident is being used by the fundamentalists to rally their supporters for protests calling for the withdrawal of American forces from the region, while the US military must be frustrated at being effectively neutered by secretary of state Colin Powell's master-stroke of going along with Musharraf. The madrasa bombing and the announcement that followed, that it had the "express consent of the Pakistani government" to pursue attackers, were intended to drive home that message that it can't be business as usual for long. If there is a war in Iraq, which is very likely, the fundamentalists will step up their protests, but Pakistan is now in the UN Security Council, and Musharraf will find himself in the unenviable position of having to go along with a US invasion of Iraq. That would effectively terminate the rapprochement between Musharraf and the fundamentalists. Despite their best efforts, the fundamentalists have not been able to get more than a couple of thousand people to gather at a rally, which shows that they have less support among common people than within army echelons. Musharraf's best option now is to stand against the fundamentalists and mend fences with secular and democratic forces in the country. Short of that his shelf-life will be even less than that of other Pakistani dictators.